Star Warrior

John Sutherland

  • Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock
    Elm Tree, 304 pp, £9.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 241 11034 3
  • Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided by Leslie Fiedler
    Oxford, 236 pp, £17.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 503086 9

George Lucas is the most money-successful film-maker there has ever been. Of the eight films he has directed or produced (he eludes the conventional Hollywood division of labour), Star Wars and The empire strikes back have sold getting on for $900m worth of tickets. C-3PO and R2-D2 are as well known as Pope John Paul or Mickey Mouse. Lucas’s second movie and first hit, American Graffiti (produced by Francis Coppola, conceived and directed by Lucas), was the most profitable investment in Hollywood history: it brought in $117m against a production cost of $750,000. Raiders of the Lost Ark (conceived and produced by Lucas, directed by Steven Spielberg) has taken $335m at the box-office (production cost $22.8m) and looks set to run in first-release theatres for as long as The Sound of Music. Lucasfilm Inc., the merchandising branch of Lucas’s empire, has turned over some $2bn from leasing out trademark-protected imagery. Darth Vader popsicles and Princess Leia knickers have contributed to Lucas’s personal fortune, currently estimated at $60m. The Return of the Jedi, which concludes the middle trilogy of the Star Wars sequence (the narrative order of the epic baffles me), broke records when it opened in America earlier this year. Lucas has recently visited England – a country he detests, though much of his filming has had to be done here – to defend Jedi against the video pirates. Five thousand pounds seems a paltry price for him to have put on the head of the Hastings Han Solo who smuggled out the film’s master copy. But George has always been careful with money, however vast the sums he generates. Having made $30m by his 30th birthday, he treated himself to a used Ferrari. ‘I have,’ he confesses, ‘this simple-minded, small-town, conservative business attitude. I’m just like a small shopkeeper.’

Although Spielberg out-earned him with ET, and Coppola gets more critical notice, Lucas is the most reliable of the precocious Moviebrat generation. And in a business where the financial risks are so great, reliability counts for more than flukey genius. There are no disastrously expensive flops like 1941 to Lucas’s discredit; nor any flawed (and disastrously expensive) masterpieces like Apocalypse Now. (The original conception of Coppola’s Vietnam folly was partly Lucas’s. It’s an interesting exercise in cinematic might-have-been to consider what his techinician’s sensibility might have made of terrestrial Warfare. Whatever else, he would have brought the movie in on budget, and probably with a PG rating.) The only grievance Lucas has given the accountants was with his first feature film, THX 1138, which contained his most explicit ideological statement, and the half-hearted More American Graffiti, where for once he tried his hand at ‘adult’ and ‘contemporary’ situations. His experience was bought cheap, compared with what Spielberg and Coppola have, on occasion, cost their backers. Thanks to his consistency, Lucas is now, creatively as well as commercially, an ‘independent’. He has brought the studios to their knees before him. All he requires from them is distribution. Less attractively, he has been able to discard the team-mates he once needed. In 1980, according to Pollock, he rejected Coppola, his first patron: ‘For the rest of my life do I have to give and give to Francis just because he was the first one to exploit me?’ Coppola’s rueful conclusion is that George is not ‘wired’ for friendship. The robot analogy frequently crops up where Lucas is concerned.

Lucas attributes his triumph to sound populist reflexes: ‘Whatever talent I have is in being in tune with a mass sensibility. My talent is not particularly in making films.’ He is, as he claims, ‘the same kind of ordinary’ as his public. But no one could have achieved his authority over millions without some megalomania. In the Seventies, Lucas made his pile. For the Eighties he has more than a small shopkeeper’s ambitions. There is ‘Skywalker Ranch’ to endow. This, as far as one can make out, will be an Edenic film-making community: George’s answer to Hollywood-Sodom. In the shorter term, once the third Luke Skywalker and second Indiana Jones episodes are done with, Lucas intends to branch out in two directions. A year ago, he joined forces with Atari to make brighter and better video games. The combination is bound to succeed on an enormous scale. And the attraction of simulation games – as Pollock notes – is that ‘actors aren’t required.’ Lucas has never enjoyed using human material for his entertainments. As the player who suffers inside the C-3PO tin can bitterly observed, George would like to keep his cast in the deep freeze and take them out only when needed. Besides the Atari deal, Lucas’s ‘next major goal is to revamp the educational system in America, augmenting teachers, textbooks and lectures with interactive video discs’. Teachers, it seems, will follow actors into the freezer.

Put simply, Lucas aspires to graduate from fun kids’ stuff to serious kids’ stuff: to assimilate the cinema, the school, the games arcade into one electronically-operated institution. His technocrat predecessor, Walt Disney, had the same grandiose designs on American youth, and progressed from the cartoon to the funfair Disneyland and, ultimately, the educational park Disneyworld. (George, unlike Walt, may live to see his academy: he’s still under 40.) Like Disney, Lucas has a special relationship with the child and, like Disney again, he has the knack of treating his largely adult audiences as boys and tomboys without offending their dignity. (Although more and more people resent the chauvinism of Lucas’s films, surveys show that decisions about cinema-going remain a masculine prerogative, in all age groups.) In line with the conventions of infantile fiction, all Lucas’s blockbusting films have been set in the historical past (’once upon a time’) or in the alien elsewhere (‘far away’). Escape is his recurrent narrative situation and escapism the reward he offers his fans ‘from seven to 70’.

Born in Modesto, Northern California, Lucas has made unassumingness his gimmick. Physically small (shorter, as a photograph shows, than Alan Ladd), he has sometimes been mistaken for a handyman on his own set. He doesn’t smoke, drink, take drugs or eat sweets. He thinks TV is ‘amoral’, though he used to enjoy watching Walter Cronkite at 9 p.m., after the day’s work had been done. He has been married to the same wife since 1969. And he’s never felt comfortable in England. ‘He couldn’t get a decent hamburger, the cars drove on the wrong side of the road, and Marcia couldn’t find anything to watch on TV.’ Lucas’s pronouncements on the art of film are often as banal as his opinion of abroad, and have a similar blue-jeans-and-sneakers informality. He likes to say that all that matters in a picture is the first five minutes and the last twenty: the rest is filler.

There would seem to be something strategically contrived in Lucas’s defiant nonentity, his hick philistinism and his Middle American puritanism. At the core of his being is a hatred of Hollywood. He despises the ‘industry’: its studios, its agents, its unions, its star system. Above all, he despises its narcissistic reverence for its own artistic achievements. ‘He thinks the Academy Awards are a farce,’ Pollock reports. Nor does the Academy (of which he is no longer a member) think much of Lucas. His films have only won Oscars for special effects and obscure technical expertise. In Lucas’s view, the studios are peopled with amateurs who cannot themselves make films, but nevertheless presume to edit his work. He sustains an abiding anger against Universal for having cut American Graffiti. In those days the studio system still had power over him: ‘It’s like taking your little kid and cutting off one of her fingers. “It’s only a finger, it’s not that big a deal,” they say. But to me, it’s just an arbitrary exercise of power. And it irritates me enormously.’

Lucas has constructed a professional self which is the opposite of the stereotype Hollywood director, riding-booted, temperamental, flamboyantly brilliant, political. His inconspicuous mufti and straitlaced life-style disdains the world of moguls and casting-couch morals. Against the ‘old Hollywood’ (as he calls it), Lucas opposes youth and new technology – which he believes will ‘democratise’ the industry – and even older rural American values. It is quite in character, but quaint to the point of surrealism, that last Thanksgiving he should have given each of the 431 employees in his ‘Lucasland’ production complex a ten-pound turkey.

With a robot-lover like Lucas, the question ‘what makes him tick?’ is unusually apt. Pollock discerns two main springs: an erotic fixation on machines (especially automobiles) and an ambivalence towards his father. The walnut farmer, George Lucas Sr, would still seem to lean heavily on his son. George Jr’s films are directly and indirectly obsessed with the activities of his misspent youth: evenings spent cruising in Modesto, his addiction to comic books, Flash Gordon serials and Disneyland. Pollock plausibly suggests that in converting a worthless childhood into art and wealth, Lucas has justified himself to a disapproving father. Certainly paternity is an important theme in Lucas’s narratives. The climactic discovery in Jedi is that Darth Vader – the arch villain – is Luke Skywalker’s father. (‘Vader’ is, of course, a babyish mispronounciation.) The film ends with an uncomfortably gooey reunion of the hero with a spectral, unmasked and paternally smiling Darth. Apart from Han Solo’s farewell to his spaceship, Millennium Falcon, it’s the only emotionally charged moment in the film – and it makes one glad that Lucas has generally kept a tight rein on his neuroses.

For all his record-breaking earnings, Lucas’s career has hardly begun. His achievement, so far, has been to reduce the importance of the literary quality of film narrative and to stress its affinity (even where it uses human actors and natural settings) with animation and graphics. Film, for Lucas, is a box of tricks. It is relatively unimportant that he has no feeling for character, or that the scripts he devises should be so appalling. ‘You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it,’ Harrison Ford once complained to his director. In composing his films, Lucas doesn’t use use prose synopses or scenarios, but story-boards which emphasise the visual element. Lucas himself terms the finished product ‘Tinker Toy movies’, with the implication that this, in essence, is what films come down to and, anyway, there is more in toys than the clever (but film-ignorant) critics have customarily allowed.

Pollock’s biography is perceptive and written with journalistic verve. As often with books about movies, a major pleasure to be had from it is the revelation of how the magician does his magic. The eerie scrape of the light sabre, for instance, is created by mixing movie-projector hum with the static from TV sets. The Jawas speak a speeded-up Zulu and Swahili dialect. The Ewoks are operated by an army of midgets and dwarfs, who must have made the Jedi set look like something from Tod Browning. And not all the tricks were easily pulled off. There is a hilarious account of the first attempt to get everyone’s favourite robot mobile, during early shooting in the Tunisian desert:

R2-D2’s electronic controls were designed to enable him to shuffle forward, turn, and move laterally, but they only succeeded in picking up Tunisian radio signals. Baker, three feet eight inches tall, could do little to control the robot. His elbows were stuck to his sides, barely allowing him to reach the switches that activated his lights and power. It was so noisy inside R2-D2 that Baker couldn’t hear Lucas call ‘Cut’; a crew member had to hit his shell with a hammer to stop him. Lucas finally removed Baker and pulled the empty R2-D2 across the sand on a thin wire. The robot promptly fell over.

Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided is the fourth monograph in the ‘Science Fiction Writers Series’. The general editor is Robert Scholes, an academic who has led the critical gentrification of SF over the past decade. The first three books in his series were devoted to Robert Heinlein, H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov. The aim, quite clearly, is to establish a core of respectable authors on which to rest a case for the eligibility of SF as an academic field of study. Scholes declares the intention in his editor’s foreword: ‘In designing the series we have selected a number of authors whose body of work has proved substantial, durable and influential, and we have asked an appropriate critic to make a book-length study of the work of each author selected, taking that author seriously enough to be critical and critically enough to be serious.’ Well and good. But the critic selected as ‘appropriate’ for Stapledon is Leslie Fiedler, whose career in letters has taken the form of a campaign to demolish canons, pantheons and Arnoldian critical seriousness. (His latest shot is called What was Literature?) Fiedler, one expects, would rather celebrate SF for its traditional outlaw status than rehabilitate it for the academic syllabus.

Surprisingly, Fiedler submits to the conservative guidelines of Scholes’s series: Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided is the most conventional book he has produced. It follows a standard life-and-works pattern. Starting with the intellectual commitments of Stapledon’s Thirties socialism, Fiedler teases out various psychic contradictions, concentrating largely on Last and First Men. (Stapledon’s masterpiece, this macro-history projects itself across two billion years and 18 mutations of humanity.) It’s carefully done, but rather dull. Nor does Fiedler show himself all that enthusiastic about Stapledon’s Science Fiction. In fact, the most lively pages in the book are inspired by the work of Stapledon’s principal disciple, Arthur C. Clarke, and his cult novel of the Sixties Childhood’s End. Clarke, though he fits less well under the ‘substantial, durable and influential’ rubric, would probably have got more interestingly under Fiedler’s skin than Stapledon, with his arid, thesis-ridden fantasies, has done.